HIGHLIGHTS: Roger Federer d. Alexander Zverev in the Hopman Cup final
Tennis made up for lost time last week. After a month and a half away, the sport returned with a deluge: Five tournaments across three continents. The players did what they could to get their reps in before the Australian Open starts next Monday.
That means there have already been a lot of winners so far in 2019. We rank the Top 10, in terms of potential significance, below.
10. Roger Federer and Serena Williams
After 20 years on tour together, the two Goats of the Open era finally met on the same court, at Hopman Cup. More important, they each went undefeated in singles. Yes, Hopman Cup is an exhibition, but if you were worried how these two 37-year-olds would look in the new year, you can probably relax. They look as fit as ever.
9. Lesia Tsurenko (Brisbane runner-up)
As I wrote last week, 30 is the new 20 in tennis, and this 29-year-old Ukrainian looks poised to keep the trend going. In Brisbane, Tsurenko made Naomi Osaka pay for a lackluster performance in the semifinals, then served for the title against Karolina Pliskova in the final. That’s when the bottom suddenly fell out, and she lost 13 points in a row. Otherwise, though, Tsurenko’s newfound cool effectiveness from the baseline will make her one of the proverbial “players no one wants to face” in Melbourne.
8. Tomas Berdych (Doha runner-up)
Yes, he’s back again—hopefully with a fully recovered back. After injuring it last spring, Berdych had to cut his 2018 season short. At 33, how much did he have left? Berdych, who contemplated retiring, wondered the same thing. But he answered his own question this week, with a runner-up finish in Doha. No seed in Melbourne is going to want to see this two-time Australian Open semifinalist in his section.
7. Bianca Andreescu (Auckland runner-up)
We ask again—what’s in the water in Canada? The nation of 37 million has wasted no time in showing off another potential new star for 2019. Andreescu, an 18-year-old from Ontario via Romania, came to Auckland ranked No. 152, qualified for the main draw, and just kept winning. She doesn’t have crazy speed or power, but she can compete: You don’t beat Caroline Wozniacki and Venus Williams, and come one game from the title against Julia Goerges in the final, if you can’t.
6. Daniil Medvedev (Brisbane runner-up)
The 22-year-old Russian has always had a lanky, quirky talent that surprised and frustrated opponents. The question seemed to be whether he had a reliable first-strike weapon that could blow them away. This week in Brisbane he found one: His leaping put-away forehand; at 6’6’, Medvedev gets some serious leverage on the shot. In a changing-of-the-guard type run, Medvedev beat Andy Murray, Milos Raonic, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, before losing to Kei Nishikori in three sets in the final.
5. Kei Nishikori (Brisbane champion)
It may not have been the most awe-inspiring title run of his career—he didn’t beat anyone in the Top 15 in Brisbane—but it still must have come as a relief. Nishikori had lost his last nine finals, dating all the way back to the now-defunct Memphis Open of 2016.
MATCH POINT: Kei Nishikori d. Daniil Medvedev in Brisbane final
4. Julia Goerges and Kevin Anderson (Auckland and Pune champions)
Sticking with the age-over-youth theme, the 30-year-old Goerges and 32-year-old Anderson each won a title this week, in Pune and Auckland, respectively. And they both did it in 11th-hour fashion: Anderson trailed Ivo Karlovic 5-2 in a third-set tiebreaker before reeling off five straight points for the title, while Goerges trailed Andreescu by a set and 5-4 before coming back to win. Over the last two years, Anderson and Goerges have proven to be surprising late-bloomers, cracking the Top 10 and going deeper than they ever had before at majors. They should both be second-week forces in Melbourne.
3. Karolina Pliskova and Rennae Stubbs (Brisbane champion)
Could this relatively new coach-player duo become the Halep and Cahill of 2019? Stubbs helped Pliskova negotiate her way to the Brisbane title this week, a run that included back-from-the-brink wins over Yulia Putintseva in the first round and Tsurenko in the final. Much of the time, Pliskova tried to go without calling Stubbs on court; in the second set of the final, though, with desperation setting in, Pliskova asked for Stubbs, and Stubbs delivered a fiery pep talk. When it worked, and Pliskova finally broke to level the second set, Stubbs looked as surprised as anyone else in the arena.
2. Roberto Bautista Agut (Doha champion)
There’s that magic age again—30. Bautista Agut hit it last April, and this past week he had perhaps the best tournament-long run of his career. In Doha, he beat Stan Wawrinka, Novak Djokovic, and Tomas Berdych in succession for his seventh career title. With veterans like Anderson and John Isner still climbing the rankings well into their 30s, there’s no reason Bautista Agut can’t do the same in 2019.
1. Aryna Sabalenka (Shenzhen champion)
It wasn’t the tournament, in Shenzhen, that she won. It wasn’t the players she beat along the way, none of whom were in the Top 20. Instead, what prompts me to put Sabalenka at the top of this list was the way she we went about winning. It has to do with one word, a word that’s key to the psyche of every successful tennis player: “should.”
Sabalenka doesn’t act as if she might win. She doesn’t act as if she’s hoping or trying to win. She already, at age 20, acts as if she should win. That alone is going to help her win a lot more in the future—maybe the very near future.
HIGHLIGHTS: Aryna Sabalenka defeats Alison Riske in the Shenzhen final